I can’t seem to resist a musical TV show. Glee proved that it was possible to incorporate musical numbers into a narrative on an American TV program, while Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was the more complete achievement. Song and dance numbers have been a feature of both Riverdale and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, becoming easily the most watchable part of the former. These shows take on dark subject matter, and the numbers are a way of keeping the darkness at bay or celebrating people’s ability to find joy amid the gloom. (As a recent New York Times article pointed out, they’re also easy to excerpt and upload to YouTube to promote the show.) Inevitably, Netflix has gotten into the game with Soundtrack, which launched late last month. With a lull in the pressure of awards season for movies, I managed to mainline the 10 episodes of the first season, and I found it a mixed bag of accomplishments and failures.
The show plays out two plotlines simultaneously. One takes place in L.A. in 2011, as a chance meeting between aspiring songwriter Sam Hudson (Paul James) and aspiring artist Eleanor “Nellie” O’Brien (Callie Hernandez) blossoms into romance. The other is set in the present day, a year after Nellie’s death from cancer, as Sam tries to take care of their 6-year-old son Barry (Isaiah Givens). Sam has family support, but unfortunately that includes his cousin Dante (Jahmil French), who has just been released from prison and is a magnet for trouble. Soon, Sam is locked in a bitter custody dispute with Nellie’s faded movie star mom (Madeleine Stowe), who can provide Barry with expensive gifts and a neighborhood free of violent crime.
The resemblances to La La Land are striking, not least because Hernandez sang and danced in that film, but because the show is also about young people pursuing their dreams and how complicated that pursuit can become. Sadly, neither show creator Joshua Safran nor his writing team can crack funny jokes, satirize the foibles of SoCal, or keep scenes from going on way too long, like the one at a Mexican restaurant where Nellie learns that Sam dropped out of the Berklee College of Music. Nellie’s attempts to finish her graphic novel and find a publisher for it are necessarily colored by our knowledge that she’s going to die, and the show only occasionally succeeds at making that into something moving.
Of course, a musical TV show should probably be judged by its musical numbers. As with Dennis Potter’s great British shows Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective, the actors mostly lip-sync the songs and only rarely sing themselves. This doesn’t work so well when the actors don’t have musical experience such as Stowe and Campbell Scott as Nellie’s ne’er-do-well father.
The younger cast, on the other hand, can not only lip-sync but also seriously dance, which is good because the show is dance-heavy. Jenna Dewan shows up as a dancer-turned-social worker who works Sam’s custody case, and while I’ve never been a fan of her acting, she is a dynamic presence when she’s moving. Her showpiece is in the second episode, when two versions of her (one in a leather catsuit and the other in lingerie) dance opposite each other to Robyn’s “Crash and Burn Girl.” The duet between James and Hernandez to Chet Baker’s “Deep in a Dream” could have come straight out of La La Land, with its unearthly vibe that’s more impressive for having been directed by horror film specialist Ti West. Hernandez, the classically beautiful actress who seems built for musicals, demonstrates her delicate dancing style in the show’s opening number to Sia’s “Elastic Heart” and a later one to Lily Allen’s “Never Gonna Happen.”
All credit goes to choreographer James Alsop, a rising star who appears in the show as a choreographer. Somehow, the heart of the show isn’t in the numbers but in Sam’s two speeches that bookend the season about what music means to him, speeches that are put over by the unaffected conviction in James’ delivery. I’m not sure where a potential second season might go, since the first seems to be a nicely self-contained thing. Regardless, Soundtrack does more than point the way for TV’s musical future. It leaves you with some good-looking numbers.